Balak: Being Open

July 17, 2019 at 8:41 pm | Posted in Balak | Leave a comment

At last, after 40 years in the wilderness, a large company of ex-slaves from Egypt camp on the east bank of the Jordan River, right across from their “promised land” of Canaan.  They have just conquered two small kingdoms of Amorites,1 which proves that God is on their side.  And when the Mesopotamian prophet Bilam tries to curse them in this week’s Torah portion, Balak, God keeps putting words of blessing in his mouth instead.2  The Israelites expect to cross into Canaan with the help of their God.

Then they get invitations from their neighbors, the Midianite Moabites3 living near their campsite.  These tribes are inhabitants of the area that used to belong to the Amorite king of Cheshbon until the Israelites defeated him and took over.

Moab Leads Israel into Sin, by Gerard Hoet, 1728

Israel settled at The Acacias, and the people began to commit forbidden intercourse with the young women of Moab.  They invited the people to slaughter offerings to their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods.  Israel yoked itself to the local god of Peor, and God became hot with anger against Israel.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 25:1-3)

Peor (פְּעוֹר) = a place name meaning Wide Opening.  (From the root verb pa-ar, פָּעַר = open wide.)

The verb pa-ar occurs only four times in the Hebrew Bible, all in reference to mouths opening wide.  Sheol (death) opens its mouth wide and the living fall down into it,4 a psalmist opens his mouth wide as he pants for God’s commandments,5 Job’s tormentors open their mouths wide against him,6 and Job remembers when men came to him for wise advice and their mouths opened wide to receive it like rainfall.7

One traditional interpretation of the name Peor is that the Midianite Moabites living near the Israelite campsite were afraid of the horde of conquerors, so they came up with a scheme for integrating the two communities on a friendly basis.  The Moabites would display their daughters to the Israelite men.  These young women would then invite the men to a banquet that included meat from animal sacrifices to Baal Peor, the local god of Peor.  The Israelites would eat, drink, and have intercourse with the Moabite women.8

This outcome would not be ideal from the Moabite point of view; fathers in the Ancient Near East preferred to sell their daughters as brides.  But at least if their scheme works, the Moabites might escape being killed or enslaved.

The Israelite men are already familiar with eating meat from animal sacrifices; in their own wholeness-offerings (shelamim) some animal parts are burned up into smoke for God, and some of the meat was reserved for the priests and the donors and their guests to eat.9  It is not surprising that Midianites across the river from Canaan worship their gods in a similar way—or that Moses’ own father-in-law was a Midianite priest in another place, southwest of Edom.

Opening their mouths to eat and drink, the Israelite men become open not just to friendship and sex with Moabites, but to their religion as well.  They forget that the God of Israel is a jealous god, who becomes “hot with anger” when they do anything that could be interpreted as worshiping an additional god.  As usual, the God-character expresses anger by starting an epidemic.  Then God tells Moses how to stop it:

Assyrian impalements

“Take all the leaders of the people and impale them before God, across from the sun; then the anger of God will turn away from Israel.”  (Numbers 25:4)

Impaling a man kills him by making an unnatural opening in his body.  “Across from the sun” is an idiom for doing something in the open, in public.

But Moses said to the judges of Israel: “Each man, kill the men yoked to Baal-Peor.”  (Numbers 25:5)

Instead of following God’s directions, Moses orders the execution of the men who actually participated in the sacrificial feasts for the god of Peor.  Before any of the judges can take action, something else happens.

The Zeal of Pinchas, Alba Bible, 1430

But hey!  An Israelite man came up, and he brought to his kinsmen a Midianite woman, in plain sight of Moses and all the community of the children of Israel!  And they were weeping at the petach of the Tent of Meeting.  And Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw; and he rose from the middle of the community and took a spear in his hand.  And he came in after the man of Israel to the enclosure, and he pierced the two of them, the man of Israel and the woman, into her “inner enclosure”, and the epidemic was halted.  (Numbers 25:6-8)

petach (פֶּתַח) = opening, entrance, doorway.

The Israelite man and the Midianite woman (identified later as Zimri, a chief of the tribe of Shimon, and Kozbi, a daughter of a Midianite chief)10 may be engaging in ritual sex for the purpose of ending the epidemic.11

The impalement of only two people, by spear, proves sufficient to calm God’s anger—perhaps because they are skewered right at the spot where an illicit entry is happening.  The epidemic comes to a halt.


This story is full of openings: the name of the local god, Peor/Wide Opening; the social opening of the invitation from the Midianite Moabites; the daughters of the Midianites opening their bodies to foreign men; the Israelite men opening their mouths to eat the sacrificial meat; the threat of impalement; the petach/opening to God’s Tent of Meeting; and the deadly opening Pinchas’s spear makes in the coupling couple.

The invitation from the Moabites seems to me like a peace offering, an ethical alternative to war.  Knowing the nature of the God of Israel, the Israelites who respond to this social opening are foolish to accept the meat (and sex) without checking its religious significance.  They succumb to their animal desires without thinking, but they could have thought it through and offered a counter-proposal to the Moabites for peaceful social relations without religious transgression.

The petach of the Tent of Meeting is an essential part of the portable sanctuary for the God of Israel.  The fact that the Israelites assemble in front of the petach of the tent in times of distress indicates the spiritual solidarity of the community.

The tent-sanctuary is not open for entry by anyone who has not been initiated into the service of God, so the Levites, including Pinchas, are charged with guarding its petach so no unauthorized persons enter.    Both Zimri, an Israelite from another tribe, and Kozbi, a non-Israelite, are forbidden to enter.

The God-character in this week’s Torah portion reacts as if any opening between the Israelites and the Moabites is bad, and the only solution is extermination.  First the God-character demands the execution of the Israelite bosses (or at least one ringleader).  Then in next week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, “he” orders the Israelites to go to war against the Midianites.12  When they do, they kill every Midianite man in the area, and take the women and children captive.  But Moses reminds them to kill all the Midianite women, too: every woman who “has known a man”.13  The whole project of friendly relations between the Midianites and the Israelites must be destroyed.


The Israelites in the Torah, like all peoples in the Ancient Near East, and like the governments of most nations today, resort to the wholesale killing of war when they cannot think of another way to resolve a difference between peoples or deal with the fear of foreigners.  Many stories in the bible portray the God-character as no better than human beings at peaceful co-existence.

Today I hear calls for eliminating people designated as foreigners, through by war, deportation, or building a wall on the border.  I also hear calls for being open to other people and celebrating our differences.

I believe there is a time to open and a time to close, but never a good time to kill.  Opening to friendships between people belonging to different groups is good.  Adopting another group’s religion, ethics, or way of life may be good only if one thinks it through and does it consciously, with one’s true self.  Being open to the possibility of God is good—but only if your idea of “God” is morally good.

Being open in a good way takes a lot of thinking.

  1. Cheshbon and Bashan. See last week’s post, Chukkat & Ecclesiastes: Accounting for Cheshbon.
  2. The Mesopotamian prophet Bilam. See my post Balak: A Question of Anxiety.
  3. See my post Balak, Pinchas, and Mattot: How Moabites Became Midianites on why the Torah refers to the local inhabitants as both Moabites and Midianites.
  4. Isaiah 5:14.
  5. Psalm 119:131.
  6. Job 16:10.
  7. Job 29:23.
  8. See Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 106a; Numbers Rabbah 20:23; and Sefer HaYashar, Numbers 7.  A different line of commentary is that people worshipped Baal Peor, the god of Peor, by baring their buttocks and opening their anuses to relieve themselves.  (Sifrei Bamidbar 131; Rashi, the acronym for the 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.)
  9. See my posts Vayikra & Tzav: Fire-Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 1 and Part 2.
  10. Numbers 25:14-15.
  11. Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible, Schocken Books, New York, 2002, p. 221.
  12. Numbers 25:16-18.
  13. Numbers 31:2-18. See my post Mattot, Va-etchannan, & Isaiah: How to Stop a Plague, Part 3.


Chukkat & Ecclesiastes: Accounting for Cheshbon

July 10, 2019 at 2:26 pm | Posted in Chukkat, Ecclesiastes/Kohelet | 1 Comment

Moses asks two foreign kings to let the Israelites cross through their land in this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (“decree of”).  Both refuse, even though Moses promises they will stay on the road, leave fields and vineyards untouched, and pay for any water they and their livestock drink.

Route of Israelites

The king of Edom says no and sends an army to the border to bar the way.1  Apparently he does not trust the Israelites, but he prefers not to attack them.  So the Israelites circle around Edom and continue north through the unpopulated wilderness east of Moab until they reach the Arnon River.  Then Moses sends the same message to King Sichon of Cheshbon.  Sichon also refuses to let the Israelites pass through, but he attacks them at his border.  The Israelites win and conquer Sichon’s land.

And Israel took all these towns, and Israel settled in all the towns of the Amorites, in Cheshbon and in all its daughter-villages.  For Cheshbon was the town of Sichon; a king of the Amorites he was, and he had battled against the first king of Moab, and he had taken all his land from his hand as far as the Arnon.  (Numbers 21:25-26)

Cheshbon (חֶשְׁבּוֹן) =

  1. a town about 14 miles (23 km) east of where the Jordan River enters the Dead Sea.
  2. accounting, reckoning. (From the root verb chashav, חָשַׁב = evaluate, consider, calculate, think out.)

After explaining that Sichon’s land used to be northern Moab, the Torah portion Chukkat quotes part of an Amorite poem celebrating Sichon’s earlier victory, translating it into Hebrew.

Route of Israelites

Therefore the epic poem says:

            “Come to Cheshbon!  It was built

            and firmly established, the town of Sichon.

            Because fire went out from Cheshbon;

            Flame from the city of Sichon.

            It consumed Ar of Moab,

            The local gods of the high places of Arnon …  (Numbers 21:27-28)

Ironically, this week’s Torah portion shows that Cheshbon is not firmly established as the town of Sichon, since the Israelites conquer it on their way to the Jordan River.

The image of fire going out of a town is often used in the Hebrew Bible for an army going out to battle, consuming enemy soldiers.  Since the Amorites spoke a Semitic language closely related to ancient Hebrew, it is not surprising that the two peoples employed the same metaphor.

Perhaps King Sichon decides to attack the Israelite travelers because his victory against Moab has convinced him that his people are stronger than anyone else.  Look at the fortified town they built!

Cheshbon contested

If Sichon cannot hang on to Cheshbon, however firmly built, can the Israelites do any better?

They go on to conquer the Amorite kingdom north of Cheshbon, then camp on the east side of the Jordan River while Moses delivers the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim.  After Joshua leads the conquest Canaan west of the Jordan, he assigns the land east of the river, now called Gilead, to the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and Menashe.  Gad gets the Cheshbon area.2

Gilead changes hands twice in the book of Judges, and is attacked a third time.  In one story, King Eglon of Moab captures the territory and holds it for 18 years until the Israelite hero Ehud brings him tribute, then assassinates him and escapes to lead the charge against the army of Moab.3

In another story, the king of Ammon (or possibly Moab) 4 makes war on Gilead for 18 years.5  The territory’s new hero, Yiftach (Jepthah in English), sends the king a message explaining that the Israelites took Gilead from Amorite kings, not from Ammon (or Moab).  He adds that even if the enemy did have a claim to the land,

When Israel dwelled in Cheshbon and her daughter-villages, and in Aroer and her daughter-villages, and in all the towns that are along the Arnon, for 300 years, then why did you not recover them during this time?  (Judges 11:26)

The king sends no reply.  Yiftach captures twenty towns and villages, and Gilead remains in the hands of Israelites.6

Gilead becomes part of David’s kingdom in the second book of Samuel.  His son Solomon assigns a governor to administer “the land of Gilead: the land of Sichon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of the Bashan.”  (1 Kings 4:19)

But after King Solomon’s death, Cheshbon and the rest of Gilead secede from Judah along with the territories of the other northern tribes.  They found the northern kingdom of Israel (also called Samaria), with Jereboam as its first king.7

When Tiglath-Pileser III (745–727 BC), king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, decided to conquer Israel, he started by capturing Gilead and deporting people in the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and Menasheh.8  The conquest of the northern kingdom continued under the next two Assyrian kings, with Sargon II capturing the capital city of Samaria in 722 BCE.

Israelites never ruled over Cheshbon again.

Taking account

The book of Ecclesiastes/Kohelet opens with the declaration that everything is futile, because nothing a human does can make a permanent change.  The same things happen over and over again, so there is nothing new under the sun.

by Auguste Rodin, 1886

Kohelet, the narrator, explores this idea at length, analyzing the activities of humankind.

Myself, I turned [it] around in my mind to know and to scout out and seek wisdom and cheshbon.  … See, this I found, said Kohelet, one by one finding a cheshbon.  I sought further in my soul … (Ecclesiastes 7:25, 7:27)

Only see this: I found that God made humankind upright, but they themselves sought many chishbonot.  (Ecclesiastes 7:27, 7:29)

chishvonot (חִשְּׁבֺנוֹת) = plans, inventions.  (Also from the root verb chashav.)

Here Kohelet states that humans are naturally good but they invent too much.  I suspect Kohelet means inventing reasons for doing what we want.  A true cheshbon, an inner accounting and reckoning, is the means to gaining self-knowledge and wisdom, which are good for their own sake.

Everything that you find you are able to go and do, do it!  Because there is no doing nor cheshbon nor knowledge nor wisdom in Sheol, where you are going.  (Ecclesiastes/Kohelet 9:10)

Sheol is where the spirits of the dead go.   Ecclesiastes affirms that after death no action or thought is possible; there is no afterlife in heaven or Gehenna.  You can only acquire wisdom by conducting a personal accounting while you are alive.


Today the place called Cheshbon is the site of an archaeological dig in Jordan.  But many Jews follow the mussar9 practice of Cheshbon Hanefesh (“Accounting of the Soul”), keeping a daily record of good and bad deeds in order to improve one’s behavior.

Cheshbon as a practice of self-examination is lasting longer than Cheshbon as a town fortified for war.

  1. Numbers 20:14-21.
  2. Joshua 22:36-37.
  3. Judges 3:12-30.
  4. Most modern scholars argue that the negotiations between Yiftach and the attacking king in Judges 11:12-28 came from another source. This explains why the two leaders discuss what happened after King Sichon took the land from Moab, and Yiftach refers to Kemosh, the god of Moab rather than Ammon.  The compiler of Judges inserted Ammon to make the story fit the battle between the Israelites of Gilead and the Ammonite army.  (Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible, Vol. 2, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2019)
  5. Judges 10:5.
  6. Judges 11:29-33. Also see my post Haftarat Chukkat—Judges: A Peculiar Vow.
  7. 1 Kings 12:1-24.
  8. 2 Kings 15:29.
  9. Mussar (מוּסַר), “moral instruction”, is a system of self-improvement developed in the 19th century CE from classic ethical texts dating back to the 11th century CE.

Korach: Bald Demands

July 2, 2019 at 5:20 pm | Posted in Korach | Leave a comment

Two rebellions against Moses and Aaron are featured in this week’s Torah portion, Korach: one by leaders from the tribe of Reuven,1 and one by 250 Levites and their leader, Korach.  The Torah introduces him as:

Korach, son of Yitzhar son of Kehat son of Levi …  (Numbers/ Bemidbar 16:1)

Is it Moses (naturally bald) or Korach (shaven bald)?
(from Charles Foster Bible Pictures, 1873)

Korach (קֺרַח) = shaven bald; icy.  (Korach may be derived from the verb karach, קָרַח = shave oneself bald, or from the noun kerach, קֶרַח = ice, frost.)

After introducing both factions that are jealous of Moses’ authority, the Torah turns first to the Levites.

They gathered against Moses and against Aaron, and they said to them: “You have too much for yourselves!  Because all the assembly, all of them, are holy, and God is in their midst; so why do you elevate yourselves over the congregation of God?”  (Numbers 16:3)

Korach is arguing that all the Israelites are holy, i.e. set aside for God.  So why should they take orders from Moses and Aaron?  He sees holiness as a legal right which God conferred on the children of Israel back at Mount Sinai.  But here is what God actually said:

“You will be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation …” (Exodus 19:6)

“You will be holy because I am holy …”  (Leviticus 19:2)

God did not say that the people were already holy; God predicted that they would someday become holy.  And both predictions were accompanied by rules for behavior to achieve holiness.  Holiness is a calling and a goal in the bible, not an entitlement.

Furthermore, Moses has already delegated many of his leadership roles.  He turned over administration and justice to 70 elders.2  He turned over religious rituals and offerings to the priests (Aaron and his sons).3  And he delegated most of the disassembly and reassembly of the portable sanctuary to the tribe of Levi.4   Moses’ only remaining job is to serve as God’s mouthpiece, passing on all the rules for behavior that will bring the people closer to holiness.  This is a duty he cannot delegate, since God continues to choose Moses as the only spokesperson.

But Korach and the Levites he represents want to be priests like Aaron and his sons.  They may also want to be prophets like Moses.

And Moses listened, and he fell on his face.  (Numbers 16:4)

God speaks to him while he is prostrate.5  Then Moses says to Korach:

“In the morning God will make known who is his, and who is the holy one, and who he will draw near to him.  And [God] will choose for himself the one he will draw near to him.  Do this: Take fire-pans for yourselves, Korach and all his assembly, and place fire in them and put incense on them in front of God tomorrow.  And the man whom God chooses will be the holy one.  [You want] too much for yourselves, sons of Levi!  …  [Already God] has drawn you close, and all your brother sons of Levi with you; so do you also seek the priesthood?”  (Numbers 16:5-7, 16:10)6

Moses discerns that Korach and the 250 Levites are really asking for priesthood for themselves, not power-sharing for everyone.  He also points out that he cannot make a decision for or against Korach and his men.  The decision is up to God.


Korach’s name reveals several motivations for demanding “too much”.


Instead of last names, biblical characters identify themselves by their lineage.  Korach is “son of Yitzhar son of Kehat son of Levi”.  Yitzhar (יִצְהָר) might mean “he is overhead”, which happens to be the position Korach desires.  His grandfather is Kehat, who is also the grandfather of Moses and Aaron.7

Korach may well envy his first cousin Aaron.  The descendants of Kehat are responsible for transporting the holiest objects in the sanctuary, even the ark itself—but only after the priests, Aaron and his sons, have covered them with multiple wrappings.  Only Aaron and his sons are allowed to see them uncovered.8

An ordinary Israelite might prefer not to risk death by looking at the most dangerous objects in the sanctuary.  But Korach is already carrying them, and he believes he is as holy as Aaron.  Why should he be denied a glimpse of the ark?


We can find more clues in Korach’s first name.  Korach means either the one who has shaven himself bald, or the icy one.

Shaving part of the head was a mourning ritual in Canaan,9 although the Torah forbids it.10  Israelites are supposed to shave their heads in the Torah only as part of a purification ritual, done for one of three reasons:

1)  To re-enter the community and its religious life after recovery from a skin disease called tzara-at.11   According to the Talmud, the first reason why God struck people with tzara-at was to punish them for evil speech.12  Perhaps Korach had whispered against Moses and Aaron earlier, and only recently recovered and shaved his head.

2) To officially end a man or woman’s term as a nazir.13  A nazir vows to let their hair grow wild and abstain from all wine and grapes for a certain period.  Korach might have taken the vow of a nazir to prove his own holiness, then found that being a nazir was not enough for him.

3)  As part of the ritual of consecration for both priests and Levites, when they commence their service in the sanctuary.   All the adult Levite men were shaven and consecrated in the wilderness of Sinai so their service could begin.14  At the time of Korach’s revolt, the people have moved to the wilderness of Paran, and the Levites’ hair has had time to grow out.  Maybe Korach shaved a second time to demonstrate that he expects to be consecrated as a priest!


Korach’s delusions of equality with Moses and Aaron are expressed by his name.  He shares their lineage, and his given name implies that he shaves his head to achieve extra holiness.

If the Israelites had a different mission, if all they needed to do was settle down and accumulate material wealth, Korach’s demands would be more reasonable.  Why not give every Levite—or even every Israelite—an equal role in the rituals that bind the community together?

But the Israelites have a higher calling; they are supposed to dedicate their whole selves to doing what God expects.  This mission requires leaders who are willing to fall on their faces to hear God’s voice; leaders who become more holy by following God’s rules; leaders who know that only God has real power.  Leaders with humility.

I believe the whole world needs humble leaders, now more than ever.

  1. See my post Korach: Buried Alive.
  2. Exodus 18:13-26 and Numbers 11:14.
  3. Leviticus 8:1-9:24.
  4. Numbers 3:5-36, 4:1-49.
  5. See my post Korach: Face Down.
  6. My translation of Numbers 16:5-7 and 16:10 uses third person masculine pronouns for God, following the original Hebrew, because a gender-neutral translation would be complicated.
  7. The father of Moses and Aaron is Amram, who is listed as a son of Kehat in Exodus 6:18-20.
  8. See my post Bemidbar: Don’t Look.
  9. See Isaiah 3:24, 15:2, and 22:12; Jeremiah 16:6, 47:5, and 48:37; and Ezekiel 7:18 and 27:31.
  10. Shaving for mourning is forbidden in Leviticus 21:5 and Deuteronomy 14:1, but God seems to encourage it in Amos 8:10 and Micah 1:16.
  11. Leviticus 14:8-9.
  12. Talmud Bavli, Arachin 16a.
  13. Numbers 6:18.
  14. Numbers 8:7.

Shelach-Lekha: Sticking Point

June 27, 2019 at 11:32 am | Posted in Shelach-Lekha | Leave a comment

The Israelites are camped in the Wilderness of Paran.  Canaan, the land God chose for them, lies just over the ridge.  Moses gets God’s permission to send twelve scouts into Canaan to gather information in Shelach-Lekha (“Send for yourself”), this week’s Torah portion.1

They return with giant fruits, including a grape cluster so big it takes two men to carry.

And they brought back word to them and to the whole assembly, and they showed them the fruits of the land.  And they gave an account, and they said: “We came into the land where you sent us, and indeed it flows with milk and devash, and this is its fruit.”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 13:26-27)

devash (דְבַשׁ) = honey, syrup.  (The bible uses the same word for honey from bees and syrup from dates or figs.)

Dripping fig

Moses has been calling Canaan a land flowing with milk and devash all along.2  Now the scouts confirm it.  The Talmud explains the phrase by claiming that when Rami bar Yechezkeil went to the village of Benei-berek he saw goats dripping milk from their udders as they grazed under fig trees dripping syrup.3  Both kinds of dripping indicate a land of abundance.

But in this week’s Torah portion, a fertile land is not enough.

“However, the people dwelling in the land are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very big, and also we saw the offspring of the giant Anak there.”  (Numbers 13:28)

Alarmed, the Israelites start grumbling against their leader, Moses.  This is what ten of the twelve scouts want, since they themselves are afraid to try conquering an armed and fortified land.  But Caleb, one of the two scouts who are in favor of carrying out God’s plan, hushes the people and says:

“We should definitely go up, and we will get possession of [the land], for we can definitely conquer it.”  (Numbers 13:30)

Caleb forgets to mention the reason for his confidence: God’s backing.

The men who had gone up with him said: “We cannot overcome [those] people, since they are stronger than us.”  Then they brought out slander of the land that they had scouted to the Israelites, saying “The land that we crossed and scouted is a land that is eating up those who live in it!  And all the people that we saw in it were men of unusual size!  … and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we would look to them.”  (Numbers 13:30-33)

Obviously the land is not eating up the people who currently live in it, since they are growing extra-large fruits and can afford to build fortified cities—and the land itself is flowing with milk and devash.

Arthur Rackham illustration for Gulliver’s Travels

Next the ten pessimistic scouts, who at first reported seeing some very large men, say that every man in Canaan is gigantic.

The Israelites are too upset to notice that these claims are merely slander.  They cry out loud all night, and tell each other that they would rather have died in Egypt than come all this way only to be defeated by the Canaanites.

When they assemble again, they are ready to stone Moses and Aaron.  The two optimistic spies, Caleb and Joshua, pull themselves together and remind the people:

“If God is pleased with us, then [God] will bring us to that land and give it to us, a land that is flowing with milk and devash.  Only do not rebel against God, and do not be afraid of the people of the land, because they will be our dinner.  Their protection has deserted them, but God is with us.  Do not be afraid!”  (Numbers 14:8-9)

This Caleb and Joshua emphasize that the land is sweet, worth conquering, and that God is protecting them.

Then the whole assembly said to pelt them with stones.  But the glory of God appeared at the Tent of Meeting to all the Israelites.  And God said to Moses: “How long will this people reject me?  And how long will they have no faith in me, with all the signs that I have made in their midst?”  (Numbers 14:10-11)

Moses talks God out of killing all the Israelites and starting over again.  But God does decree that the people will not be allowed to enter Canaan until all the men age 20 and over have died, except for Caleb and Joshua.


What is wrong with these people?  Don’t they remember how God drowned a whole army of Egyptians to save them at the Reed Sea?  Are they so used to seeing the glory of God appear in a pillar of cloud and fire that they don’t take it seriously anymore?  Why don’t they believe God will deliver the land of Canaan to them, as promised?

One explanation is that the Israelites remember all the times God smote them, as well as the times God saved them.  In the book of Exodus, after the Levites kill 3,000 men who they suspect of worshiping the golden calf, God afflicts many of the survivors with a plague.4

Quail in the Wilderness, by Caspar Luyken

Shortly after they leave Mount Sinai, the people complain about the food and whine that they are tired of manna.  God blankets the ground with quail, then kills everyone who starts to eat the birds.5

How can the Israelites count on a God who keeps killing them?  Even if they are careful not to rebel by making another golden calf or complaining about the manna, they are bound to make some other error, and then they will find themselves facing the Canaanites without God’s protection.

I think this is a reasonable fear.  Yet if they reject God and do not march ahead into Canaan, what will happen to them?  If God even lets them return to Egypt, they will face execution or enslavement.  Surely it would be better to risk death or enslavement in Canaan, where there is a chance that God will aid them and they can settle down in a land of milk and devash.

Ethical objections are not an issue; the bible does not consider the morality of starting an unprovoked war against Canaan’s inhabitants and subjugating everyone they do not kill.  So why do the people refuse to cross over into Canaan?

It is hard to grow up and take on a new life, a life in which we are responsible for something we do not know yet how to do.  When we are children, someone else feeds us and guides us and takes care of our needs.  When the Israelites are slaves in Egypt, their parent-figure is the Pharaoh.  Then they are adopted and rescued by God.  The Israelites settle into an adolescent relationship with God, grumbling and rebelling occasionally as they look forward to the promised land, the way teenagers look forward to adulthood.

Suddenly it is time to leave home and make our own place in a world of strangers—giants we cannot hope to compete with.  The promised land is both exciting and frightening.

Most people take a deep breath, take the risk, and cross over the ridge into Canaan.

But life takes more than one deep breath.  As an adult, I keep facing another ridge to climb, another new land to enter.  I never know whether I am strong enough to do the next thing that I have never done before.  I never know whether inspiration or luck will be on my side.

But when the new land is important, and there is no good alternative, the best you can do is to cross that ridge whether you have faith in God or not.  Otherwise, you will be stuck in the wilderness until you die.

May each of us be blessed with the courage to go forward, and may our rewards be sweeter than devash.

  1. See the first part of my post Shelah-Lekha: Reminder for more details.
  2. Exodus 3:8, 3:17, 13:5, and 33:3; Leviticus 20:24.
  3. Talmud Bavli, Ketubot 111b.
  4. Exodus 32:28, 32:35
  5. Numbers 11:4-6, 11:31-34.


Beha-alotkha: Facing It

June 20, 2019 at 12:55 pm | Posted in Beha-alotkha | Leave a comment

One face is dark brown.  One face is white with disease.  One face radiates bright light.


circa 400 BCE, Greek

The dark face belongs to Moses’ wife in this week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha (“when you are drawing up”).

Miriam spoke, and Aaron, be-Moses on account of the Kushite wife that he had taken; for he had taken a Kushite wife.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 12:1)

be- (בְּ) = a prepositional prefix.  Like most prepositions, be- has many meanings.  In this context, be- = with, against.  (In the word beha-alotkha, be- = when.)

The ambiguity of the preposition be- has led to two interpretations of Miriam and Aaron’s complaint:

1) Miriam and Aaron speak privately with Moses on behalf of his wife, because he is not treating her properly.  What is he doing wrong?  Withholding sex from her, according to the Midrash Rabbah and later commentary.1  This interpretation provides one explanation of the next verse:

And they said: “Is it indeed only be-Moses God spoke?  Isn’t it also banu He spoke?”  (Numbers 12:2)

be- (בְּ) = In this context, the preposition be- = with, through.

banu (בָּנוּ) = with us, through us. Banu = be-(בְּ) + -anu (נוּT) = a suffix indicating a first personal plural pronoun as an object.

According to the commentary, Miriam and Aaron are saying that God speaks with them (or through them, when they serve as prophets), but they still have sex with their spouses.  Even if God speaks more often with and through Moses, that is no excuse for him to deprive his wife.

Moses and His Ethiopian Wife, by Jacob Jordaen, 1650

2) Miriam and Aaron speak publicly against Moses, complaining about his mixed marriage.

In Exodus/Shemot Moses’ wife was Tziporah, the daughter of a Midianite priest.  But this week, in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, she is only called “the Kushite”.  Kush is the land south of Egypt, noted in the bible for people with very dark skin.2

Some commentators have argued that Tziporah is “the Kushite wife”, so-called either because she had darker skin than usual for a woman in the ancient Near East, or because “kush” also means beautiful, or because there was also a land of Kushites in Arabia.3

But others wrote that Moses had two wives, Tziporah and an Ethiopian.  Josephus told one version of an extrabiblical adventure for Moses in Ethiopia, where he supposedly served as an Egyptian general in his youth, won a war, and married the defeated king’s daughter.4

Whether the wife in this week’s Torah portion is a Midianite or a Kushite, the complaint about Moses’ marriage implies racism.  Yet the first five books of the bible are only concerned about marrying outside one’s religion.5  The Torah repeatedly tells us not to cheat or oppress foreign immigrants (see my post Mishpatim: The Immigrant).  Even the book of Ezra, which requires Israelite men to separate from non-Israelite wives, describes these foreign women in terms of their religious practices.6  And the book of Ruth is an example of a virtuous mixed marriage between an Israelite and a Moabite.

Moses’ wife, Midianite or Kushite, presumably converted, like Ruth.  So Miriam and Aaron may well find her acceptable, regardless of the color of her face.


When I see people who look markedly different from me and my family, I try to catch their eye, and then smile at them.  If they smile back, we might exchange a greeting.  Then as I walk on I feel brighter—and safer.  The stranger is not a threat after all, but someone like me.

Why do so many of my fellow citizens hate the stranger, the man with “black” skin, the immigrant who speaks a different language, the woman who dresses like a Muslim?  I know the answer: because they are afraid, and it feels better to turn fear into anger.

At least it does for many people.  One advantage of being scared of everyone as a child, even girls who looked like me, is that now timidity is an old friend.  When I grew up I made a habit of smiling at people who do look like me, as well as those who don’t, and exchanging a greetings with them, too.  Then as I walk on I feel brighter—and safer.


by Ernest Christophe, 1876

The white face belongs to Moses’ sister, Miriam.

After Miriam and Aaron speak with or against Moses, God orders the three siblings to report to the Tent of Meeting.  According to God, the problem is that Miriam and Aaron are claiming to be prophets equal to Moses.  God declares that nobody is equal to Moses, and adds:

“Why were you not afraid to speak be- my servant, be-Moses?”  (Numbers 12:8)

In this context, the preposition be- means “against”.  God is angry, and Miriam is the instigator of the complaint.

And the cloud moved away from over the tent, and hey!  Miriam had a skin disease like snow!  Aaron vayifein Miriam, and hey!  Skin disease!  (Numbers 12:10)

vayifein (וַיִּפֵן) = turned to face.  (From the same root as paneh, פָּנֶה = face.)


Miriam’s skin disease is tzara-at, which make skin look dead-white and depressed compared to the surrounding skin.  (See my post Tzaria & 2 Kings: A Sign of Arrogance.)  The book of Exodus decrees that anyone with that skin disease must live outside the camp until it has healed.

Aaron begs Moses to intercede with God, saying:

“Please don’t let her be like one who is dead going out from the womb of his mother, and half his flesh looks eaten.”  (Numbers 12:12)

Moses prays, and God promises that Miriam’s skin disease will last for only seven days, but she must live outside the camp in shame for those seven days.

Moses is separated from his wife indefinitely, because his whole being is engaged in being God’s prophet.  Miriam is separated from the community for seven days, because she was too self-absorbed to see that Moses is a different kind of prophet.


Like Miriam, I can become so absorbed in my own desires and my own calling that I forget other people have different desires and different callings.  I write about the Torah, but I do not embrace every aspect of Jewish tradition.  Some Jews are meticulous about halakhah, the rules for behavior in every aspect of life.  Some are absorbed in the mysticism of kabbalah.  (I have encountered the same two types among Christians.)

I do not understand these people, any more than Miriam understood her brother Moses.  Nevertheless I have been guilty of speaking against them, declaring that both approaches are irrational.  They are irrational to me.  But my mind works differently from the mind of a strictly observant Jew or the mind of a mystic, even if our faces are similar.

When I express my own truth too loudly, I am like Miriam declaring that she is a prophet, too, so she knows Moses is wrong to be celibate.

Miriam blanches when God reveals her error.  She knows she must isolate herself until she has healed.  When I realize I have forgotten that individuals are different behind their faces, I feel ashamed and I retreat for a while.


The burning face belongs to Moses himself.  He acquires radiant skin in the book of Exodus, after seeing God’s “back” on Mount Sinai.

Moses, by James Tissot

When Moses went in before God to speak with [God], he would remove the veil until after he went out; and he went out and spoke to the children of Israel what had been commanded.  And the Israelites saw the penei Moses, that the penei Moses radiated light.  Then Moses put the veil back over panav until he came to speak with [God again].  (Exodus/Shemot 34:34-35)

penei (פְּנֵי) = face of.  (From paneh, פָּנֶה = face.)

panav (פָּנָו) = his face.  (Also from paneh, פָּנֶה = face.)

When Moses passes on God’s commands, he leaves his face exposed.  His glowing skin demonstrates that he is not an ordinary prophet like Miriam or Aaron.

But when he is not speaking with God or passing on God’s instructions, Moses veils his face.  The radiance of his skin is too overwhelming for the Israelites to see as they go about their daily tasks.

I imagine that if the skin all over his body also glows, marital relations would be difficult.  Even if Moses’ wife kept her eyes shut, could they touch one another the way they used to?  This physical explanation for Moses’ celibacy does not occur to Miriam or Aaron.

Nor does it occur to them that Moses never gets time off from listening for God.  God has conversations with Moses all the time, but Miriam and Aaron are summoned when God wants to speak with them.  In this week’s Torah portion,

Suddenly God said to Moses and to Aaron and to Miriam: “Go, the three of you, to the Tent of Meeting.”  So the three of them went.  And God came down in a pillar of cloud, and stood at the entrance of the tent, and called out: “Aaron and Miriam!”  (Numbers 12:4-5)

Then God reminds them that they are ordinary prophets, not comparable with Moses.


Several friendly Muslim women in our apartment complex wear a hijab whenever they leave their apartments.  Their hair and necks are covered, but their faces are exposed, so when I meet them in the laundry room we can easily exchange smiles and greetings.

But once I passed a woman in the grocery story wearing a burka, so her face was completely covered.  She could see through the mesh panel in front of her eyes, but I could not see her eyes, and therefore I could not meet them.  I smiled in her direction, but I could discern no response.  I felt as if I were smiling at a rock draped in cloth.

The woman in the burka was more isolated than Miriam during the seven days she lived outside the camp because of her skin disease.  And her isolation was deliberate.

Is Moses that isolated when he wears his veil around the camp?  What would it be like to give up all ordinary human contact?  What would you get in exchange for losing your face?

  1. Midrash Tanchuma (a 6th to 9th-century collection of allegories and homilies) assumes in Tzav 13 that Moses stopped having sexual relations with his wife. So do Exodus Rabbah 46:13 and Deuteronomy Rabbah 11:10 (10th to 12th century collections of imaginative commentary, part of the Midrash Rabbah), and Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki).
  2. Being a Kushite indicates a genetic skin color in Jeremiah 36:14: “Can a Kushite change his skin?  Or a leopard his spots?”  It is a derogatory term in Amos 9:7, where God says challengingly: “Aren’t you like the Kushites to me, children of Israel?”
  3. E.g. Sifrei Badmidbar (a 3rd-century CE commentary on Numbers), 12:99; Midrash Tanchuma, Tzav 13; and Rashi.  Tziporah might be unusually dark-skinned because she spends her days out in the sun, like the female narrator in Song of Songs 1:5-6.
  4. Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, in Antiquities 2:252-253 (circa 93 CE), told one version of the Ethiopian marriage story invented by an unknown Judean sometimes between the 6th and 3rd centuries BCE.
  5. However, Deuteronomy 23:4-7 prohibits a Moabite or Edomite from converting.
  6. Ezra 9:1-2.


Haftarat Naso—Judges: Spot the Angel

June 11, 2019 at 9:47 pm | Posted in Judges, Naso | Leave a comment

Abraham bows
to a malakh, detail by J..J. Tissot

Would you recognize an angel if you saw one?

The Hebrew Bible usually calls an angel a malakh (מַלְאַךְ = messenger) of God.  A messenger of God appears to a human being and delivers its message, then disappears again.  Frequently the angel looks like a man at first, though occasionally it looks unnatural from the beginning, like the burning bush Moses sees,1 or it is only a disembodied voice.2

(Angels with wings appear to Isaiah, but they are called serafim, and each has six wings.)

A malakh of God drives the action in the beginning of the story of Samson in the book of Judges, which is the haftarah reading accompanying this week’s Torah portion, Naso.3  The story introduces a man from the tribe of Dan named Manoach.  He and his wife are childless.

A malakh of God appeared to the woman, and he said to her: “Hey, please! You are childless and you have not given birth, but you shall conceive and give birth to a son. So now guard yourself, please, and don’t you drink wine or alcohol, and don’t you eat anything ritually impure.  Because here you are, pregnant, and you will give birth to a son.  And a razor must not go over his head, because the boy will be a nazir of God from the womb.  And he will begin to rescue Israel from the hand of the Philistines.” (Judges 13:3-5)

Samson and Delilah,
by Gustave Dore, detail

nazir (נָזִיר) = someone consecrated to God through abstaining from wine, haircuts, and mourning.  (From the root verb nazar, נזר = dedicate to a god; exercise abstention.)

Becoming a nazir is a choice, according to this week’s Torah portion.  Only an adult man or woman may make the vow to live as a nazir for a period of time.4  Yet in the haftarah, neither Samson nor his mother gets to choose whether or not to make a vow.

After the annunciation, the woman whose status has suddenly changed from childless to pregnant goes into the house.5

The woman came in, and she said to her husband, saying: “A man of God came to me, and his appearance was like the appearance of a malakh of the God, very awesome.  And I did not ask him where he was from, and he did not tell me his name.”  (Judges 13:6)

Why is the woman outside, where men traditionally worked, while Manoach is inside the house, where women worked?

The woman tells Manoach that the angel looked like a man, but more awesome.  She knows an angel when she sees one, and she knows enough not to ask the kind of personal questions you would ask a human traveler, such as where he came from or what his name is.

She continues:

“And he said to me: “Here you are, pregnant!  And you will give birth to a son.  And you, don’t you drink wine or strong drink, and don’t you eat anything ritually impure, because the boy will be a nazir of God from the womb until the day he dies.”  (Judges 13:7)

It does not occur to Manoach that anyone else might have impregnated his wife, or that she might have actually seen an angel.  Furthermore, although she says what the angel told her to do while she is pregnant, Manoach does not take her word for it.

Then Manoach pleaded with God, and he said: “If you please, my lord, the man of the God whom you sent, please may he come again to us, and teach us what we should do for the boy who will be born.”  And the God heard the voice of Manoach.  And the malakh of the God again came to the woman—”  (Judges 13:8-9)

The malakh of God does not appear to Manoach.  So his wife runs home and tells her husband what she saw.

And Manoach got up and followed his wife, and he came to the man and he said to him: “Are you the man who spoke to the woman?”  And he said: “I am.”  (Judges 13:11)

Manoach does not refer to his wife by her name, or even as “my wife”, but merely calls her “the woman”.

I remember the sexism in the United States in the early 1960’s, when it was common for men to refer to their spouses as “the wife” or “the little woman”.  I was surprised, as a child, to hear my father refer to my mother that way when he was chatting with a fellow man.  The traditional male role in the 1960’s also included working outside the home, as it did in Canaan in the 11th century BCE.

Manoach asks the malakh of God what they should do about the boy.  The angel replies:

“From everything I said to the woman she must guard herself: she must not eat from anything that goes out from a grapevine, and she must not drink wine or strong drink, and she must not eat anything ritually impure.  Everything that I commanded her, she must observe.”  (Judges 13:13-14)

Manoach did not believe his wife, but now that he has confirmation from a strange man, he is satisfied.  However, he still does not believe his wife’s assessment that the man is really an angel.

And Manoach said to the malakh of God: “Let us detain [you], please, and we will prepare a goat-kid for you.”  But the malakh of God said to Manoach: “If you detain me, I cannot eat your food, and if you prepare a rising-offering, offer it up to God.”  Because Manoach did not know that he was a malakh of God.  (Judges 13:15)

Manoach still does not grasp the situation.  But he is eager to find some way to be polite to the man who has promised his wife a son.

Sacrifice of Manoah, by Eustache Le Sueur, 1640-1650

And Manoach said to the malakh of God: “Who—  Your name?  Because when your word comes [true], then we can honor you.”  And the messenger of God said to him: “Why do you ask for my name?  It is a mystery!”  (Judges 13:17-18)

Manoach prepares a goat-kid and a grain-offering for God, and lights a fire to roast them.

And the flame was climbing from upon the altar toward the heavens, and the malakh of God went up in a flame from the altar.  And Manoach and his wife saw, and they fell on their faces to the ground.  And the malakh of God did not appear again to Manoach or to his wife.  That was when Manoach knew that he was a malakh of God.  (Judges 13:20-21)


Why does it take so long for Manoach to realize the visitor was an angel, when his wife notices something numinous about the “man” right away?

Part of the reason must be for comic effect.  But I think Manoach’s inability to recognize what is in front of him is also related to his sexism.

The bible portrays society in ancient Israel realistically, so its laws assume that men own all the land, and women are dependent on their men: their fathers before marriage, their husbands during marriage, and their sons after they are widowed.  But the bible does not portray women as interchangeable or stupid or unworthy of being listened to.  (In Genesis 21:12, God even tells Abraham: “Everything that Sarah says to you, listen to her voice.”  And he obeys his wife.)

Maybe if a man cannot listen to his wife, he has trouble listening to a malakh of God.  Maybe if he cannot see his wife as a human being who might do something surprising, he cannot see someone who looks superficially like a man as someone who might really be an angel.  This applies not just to men, but to women and all humans who classify people into categories instead of being curious about them as individuals.

Would you recognize an angel if you saw one?

  1. Exodus 3:2-3, which is also an example of how an angel’s voice becomes God’s voice.
  2. e. the angel who speaks to Abraham in Genesis 22:11-16.
  3. Every week of the year is assigned its own Torah portion (from the first five books of the bible, the Torah) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the Prophets). The haftarah for Naso is Judges 13:2-13:25.
  4. See my post Naso: Distanced by Hair.
  5. For arguments in favor of the angel doing the impregnating, see Marc Zvi Brettler, “Who Was Samson’s Real Father?”,

Bemidbar: Two Kinds of Troops

June 5, 2019 at 5:43 pm | Posted in Bemidbar | 1 Comment

Battle with the Amalekites, by J. Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1860

The Israelite ex-slaves won their first battle, but it was a close call.  The tribe of Amalek attacked them in the wilderness between Egypt and Mt. Sinai, in the book of Exodus/Shemot.  Moses asked his aide, Joshua, to choose some men to fight back.  They eventually defeated the Amalekites only because Moses was sitting on a hill above, holding up the staff of God with the the help of two men.1  It was an ad-hoc battle; none of the Israelite men had been organized or prepared.

But when the Israelites leave Mt. Sinai in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, over a year later, they are heading for the southern border of Canaan, only an 11-day march away.2  And this time they expect to be the ones doing the attacking, as they began the process of conquering the “promised land”—with God’s help.

The first Torah portion in the book of Numbers, also called Bemidbar (“in the wilderness of”)3 describes the organization of the Israelites into formations for marching and camping.  God tells Moses:

“Take a head-count of the whole congregation of the sons of Israel by their clans, by their ancestral houses, by counting the names of every male, head by head.  From age 20 years and above, everyone going out in the tzava of Israel, you shall enroll them for their tzava, you and Aaron.”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 1:2-3)

tzava (צָבָא) = army, troop; military service.  (This noun was later extended to include any community of people engaged in organized service for a specific purpose.  But in the bible from Genesis through Malachi, it always refers either to human military troops, or to God’s organization of the stars or divine forces.4)

“Everyone going into the tzava” turns out to be all the adult men of every tribe except Levi.  As Moses and his committee count the adult men in each tribe, the Torah introduces the total with:

every male from the age of 20 years and above, everyone going out in the tzava: those enrolled from the tribe of …5

This week’s Torah portion lists twelve tribes going out in the tzava; it splits the tribe of Joseph into two tribes, named after his two sons Efrayim and Menasheh.  That makes Levi the thirteenth tribe of Israelites.

However, the tribe of Levi you shall not enroll, and you shall not count their heads among the sons of Israel.  (Numbers 1:49)

Are the Levite men excused from military service?  Not quite.  Instead of being assigned to battalions, they are assigned to guard duty.

Enroll the Levites over the Dwelling-Place of the Testimony, and over all the equipment that belongs to it.  They shall carry the Dwelling-Place and all its equipment, and they themselves shall attend to it, and they shall camp surrounding the Dwelling-Place.  (Numbers 1:50)

The “Dwelling-Place” (mishkan, מִשְׁכַּן )  is God’s part-time residence, also called the Tent of Meeting since Moses receives the instructions from God there.  This tent contains the most sacred objects: the ark, the menorah, the bread table, and the incense altar.  The priests must wrap these sacred objects when it is time to move, since even Levites may not see them.

from Collectie Nederland

The Levites actually camp outside the walls of the courtyard around the tent, to make sure that no one from the other tribes gets too close at the wrong time.

When pulling out, the Levites shall take down the Dwelling-Place, and when setting up camp, the Levites shall erect it.  But an unauthorized person who comes close shall be put to death.  (Numbers 1:51)

The Torah portion Bemidbar does not say who is responsible for putting an interloper to death.    The Talmud suggests that the death would be “at the hand of Heaven”,6 but the only example in the Torah of a mysterious death of a trespasser is in Leviticus/Vayikra, when two newly ordained priests, Nadav and Avihu, bring unauthorized incense all the way into the Holy of Holies at the back of the tent.7

from Sacra Parallela, 9th century Byzantine

Then are the Levites themselves responsible for putting an interloper to death?  Perhaps.  Later in the book of Numbers, some Midianite women of Moab entice Israelite men into worshiping their local god.  The God of Israel is enraged and punishes the Israelites the usual way, with an indiscriminate plague.  Then a Shimonite man and a Midianite woman enter the Tent of Meeting to fornicate, and a Levite named Pinchas runs in and skewers them.  Levites are supposed to serve in the courtyard around the tent, not inside the tent itself.  But the epidemic abruptly ends, and God rewards Pinchas with priesthood.8

This episode correlates with the next instruction in this week’s Torah portion:

And the Israelites shall camp, each man in his camp, and each man in his division, for their tzava.  But the Levites shall camp surrounding the Dwelling-Place of the Testimony, so that the rage of God will not fall on the congregation of the Israelites; and the Levites shall guard the custody of the Dwelling Place of the Testimony.  (Numbers 1:52-53)

If an unauthorized person got too close to God’s Dwelling-Place, or even entered it, God’s anger would be triggered, and that would trigger an epidemic.  Although the God-character in the Torah wants the Israelites to take over Canaan, this character has an anger management problem.  (See my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy.)  Therefore the Levites get their own military service: guarding the Dwelling-Place of God, who is a loose cannon.

The Israelite men from the other twelve tribes are enrolled in the army from age 20 and over.  But the Levite men are enrolled from the ages of 30 to 50.9

Take a head-count of the sons of Kehat among the sons of Levi, by their clans, by their ancestral houses, from age 30 years and above up to 50 years, everyone who comes for tzava, to do tasks at the Tent of Meeting.  (Numbers 4:2-3)

The Kehatites are assigned the duty of carrying the sacred objects from inside the Dwelling Place from one campsite to the next.  Next week’s Torah portion, Naso, assigns porterage duties to the other two branches of the Levite tribe.  Each list of duties begins the same way as the first.

The traditional interpretation is that age limit of 30 to 50 years applied only to Levite porterage duties, and after age 50 these men still guarded the gates, as well as singing, collecting tithes, and instructing younger Levites.10  Rashi11 explained that while a 20-year-old is strong enough to fight, the strength to carry heavy objects is not fully developed until age 30.  After age 50, a man’s strength begins to diminish again.

But the Torah says three times that Levites age 30 to 50 comprise “everyone who comes for tzava, to do tasks at the Tent of Meeting.”  Since tzava means military service, this must refer to the task of guard duty at the Tent of Meeting.

Soldiers in an army must use weapons, obey commands, and distinguish whether their targets are members of the designated enemy.  The maturity and strength of a 20-year-old are sufficient.

Guards of God’s Dwelling Place would also carry weapons and be able to distinguish between insiders and interlopers.  In addition, they would need the ability to calibrate their warnings and actions to fit various situations, and to sense when the threat is urgent enough to risk an intervention that might be out of bounds, like Pinchas’ skewering.  No wonder this week’s portion set the lower limit at 30.

Then why is the upper limit age 50?  Was the Torah concerned about premature senility?

I doubt it.  What I have noticed in my own life is that many, though not all, people become less strict in their fifties or sixties.  We learn to accept the things that go wrong, and we forgive more easily.  We are better than ever at reasoning with potential trespassers, but less likely to shoot them.  We grow into a type of maturity that does not suit the severity of the religious rules in this part of the bible.

That is why I would make a poor guard for any strictly designated holy space, and a poor guardian of received religious tradition.  Yet I keep studying Torah and I keep writing this blog.  It is a calling.  I interpret the angry, immature God-character who often appears in the Torah as a reflection of limitations in the humans who struggled to turn divine inspiration into stories and a code of rules.  But I also seek out the inspirations behind the text, and the God behind the God-character.

I am glad I am disqualified, on several counts, from being enrolled in the military service of Levites.

  1. Exodus 17:8-13.
  2. Deuteronomy 1:2. In Numbers 13:25-14:35, God dooms the Israelites to spend another 38 years in the wilderness before they cross into Canaan at a different border.
  3. Each weekly reading in the first five books of the bible is named after an important word in its first sentence (codified by Moses ben Maimon, a.k.a. Rambam or Maimonides, in the 12th century CE.) The name of the first portion in the book is also the name of the book.  The book of Numbers/Bemidbar begins:  Then God spoke to Moses bemidbar Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting …  Since bemidbar (“in the wilderness of”) is the construct form of the word bamidbar (“in the wilderness”), both Bemidbar and Bamidbar are used to name the book and the portion.
  4. Examples of God’s tzava are Genesis 2:1, in which tzava refers to stars, and Exodus 7:4, in which tzava refers to God’s power to make miracles. See my post Haftarat Bo—Jeremiah: The Ruler of All Armies on the name of God that includes the word Tzevaot, צְבָאוֹת, the plural of tzava.
  5. Numbers 1:20-21 (Reuven), 1:22-23 (Shimon), 1:24-25 (Gad), 1:26-27 (Judah), 1:28-29 (Yissakhar), 1:30-31 (Zevulun), 1:32-33 (Efrayim), 1:34-35 (Menasheh), 1:36-67 (Binyamin), 1:38-39 (Dan), 1:40-41 (Asheir), and 1:42-43 (Naftali).
  6. Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 84a.
  7. See my post Shemini: Fire Meets Fire.
  8. Numbers 25:6-15. See my post Balak & Pinchas: How to Stop a Plague, Part 1.
  9. Levites are counted twice in this Torah portion. First all male Levites at least one month old are counted, and then declared official substitutes at the sanctuary for all non-Levite firstborn sons.  (Numbers 3:14-16, 3:39-51.)  The second count is for Levite men age 30-50 to engage in porterage duty.
  10. See my post Beha-alotkha & Ezra: Retirement Age.
  11. Rashi is the acronym of 11th-century rabbi and commentator Shlomoh Yitzchaki.

Bechukkotai: Why Obey?

May 29, 2019 at 1:35 pm | Posted in Bechukkotai | Leave a comment

Why should the Israelites obey God’s rules?  The last Torah portion in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, Bechukotai (“By my decrees”), answers the question with a carrot and a stick.

The carrot is that if they do obey, God will reward them with abundant produce from their crops; no attacks by wild beasts; either peace, or victory if they choose to go to war; and God’s presence in their midst.1

The stick is much longer.

But if you do not heed me and you do not do all these commands, and if you reject my decrees and if your soul is nauseated by my laws, so that you are not doing all my commands, voiding my covenant; then I on my part will do this to you: (Leviticus/Vayikra 26:14-16)

The first punishments God threatens are disease and raids by neighboring countries.  If the Israelites continue disobeying and gagging on God’s rules, the second round of punishments will be drought and crop failure.

Then the Torah changes the unacceptable attitude from nausea to either perverse opposition or disbelief.  God introduces the third round of punishments with:

And if you walk keri with me, and you are not willing to heed me, then I will go on striking at you …  (Leviticus 26:21)

keri (קֶרִי) = in perverse opposition; only by chance.

The word keri occurs only seven times in the Hebrew Bible, all seven in the Torah portion Bechukkotai.  Most older translations use the English word “contrary”, but some commentators posit that keri comes from the verb karah (קָרָה) = befell unexpectedly, happened by chance.2

Lion attack, Persepolis

When people in the Torah “walk with God”, they are following God’s rules and desires.  In this week’s Torah portion, when the Israelites walk in opposition to God, as if what happens to them comes only by chance and not by God’s will, then they will suffer.   In the third round of threats, God promises that wild beasts will kill their children and their cattle, and their roads will become empty.

The fourth round of threats begins:

And if these do not make you accept my discipline, and you walk keri with me, then I, even I, will walk by keri with you, and I will strike you …  (Leviticus 26:23-24)

Now God promises to oppose the Israelites and/or treat them as irrelevant to God’s will.  At this point God will let the enemies of the Israelites besiege their cities.  Everyone who crowds inside the city walls for shelter will be afflicted with disease and starve for lack of bread.

The fifth and final round of punishments also uses the word keri.

And if despite this you do not heed me, and you go with me by keri, then I will walk with you with a fury of keri, and I will punish you …  (Leviticus 26:27-28)

This time the starving Israelites will eat their own children, while God stands by.  God will destroy their hilltop shrines (because worshiping other gods is one of the ways the Israelites keep breaking God’s commandments).  Then their enemies will destroy their cities, the land will be desolated, and the people will be scattered in other countries.3

Assyrian & Babylonian Deportations

Modern scholars estimate that the list of blessings and punishments in this week’s Torah portion, like much of the book of Leviticus, was written sometime after the war of 589-587 BCE, when the Babylonian army finished conquering the southern Israelite kingdom of Judah, besieged and destroyed Jerusalem, and deported most of its upper classes and craftsmen.  (The northern kingdom of Israel had already been swallowed up by the Assyrian Empire a century and a half before.)  So the five levels of punishment had already happened when God’s speech was written.

By framing history as God’s prediction (or threat) at Mt. Sinai, the Torah drives home the idea that the downfall of the Israelites of Judah was their own fault.  God warned them, but they continued to walk keri with God, so of course they suffered the ultimate punishments.

Guilt is more effective than fear

The Torah portion Bechukkotai also shows that escalating punishments do not work.  The only effects of experiencing the helplessness of being without God’s protection are misery and excessive fear.

And I will bring the remainder of you faint-hearted into the lands of your enemies.  The sound of blowing leaves will pursue them, and they will flee as if fleeing from the sword, and they will fall although nobody is pursuing.  (Leviticus 26:36)

The image of running away from blowing leaves (commonly translated into English as “a driven leaf”) emphasizes that the deported Israelites live in a state of continuous anxiety.

Then you will become lost among the nations, and the land of your enemies will eat you up.  (Leviticus 26:38)

Being lost and eaten up may refer to death, or it may refer to assimilation.  Either way, there would be no more Israelites.  Nevertheless, God expects some of the exiles to feel not only faint-hearted, but also guilty.4  Once they recognize their guilt, there is hope for them.

Then they must confess their guilt and the guilt of their forefathers in failing to do their duty; that they were undutiful to me, and also that they walked by keri with me.  Indeed, I myself will walk by keri with them and I will bring them into the land of their enemies; perhaps that is when their uncircumcised heart will become humbled, perhaps that is when they will make amends for their wrongdoing. (Leviticus 26:40-41)

When the diminishing Israelites do confess and repent, they “circumcise” their hearts, making them open and sensitive to God’s word.  At that point God promises to remember the covenant with their ancestors Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham, and with the people God rescued from Egypt.5  The implication is that then God will rescue the remaining Israelites from Babylon and bring them back to their former land.

Why do the Israelites disobey and oppose their God?

Here are my favorite theories:

  1. When people stop studying God’s rules, they no longer understand them, so they don’t bother to obey them. They justify their disobedience by deciding they are superior to those who blindly obey stupid laws. Only someone who understands the reasons for divine laws can obey them with love.6
  2. When bad things happen, it is human nature to blame someone else and avoid introspection. We might blame other people, or we might blame God. Since we do not change our own behavior, nothing changes in the world. 7
  3. When we are taught only in terms of physical reward and punishment, we develop an unhealthy relationship with the authority figure. Either we mindlessly do anything to win the authority figure’s approval, or we live in continual fear, or we come to despise the authority figure and rebel against the rules.

What changes their minds about God?

Fear leads to temporary obedience, and reward and punishment work on a simple level with non-human animals and small children.  But as humans learn to think, we make their own judgments about right and wrong.  In this week’s Torah portion, people return to obeying and trusting God only when they come to believe they did something wrong, and feel guilty about it.  Then they want to make amends.

The very act of making amends by returning to their religion gives the Israelites meaning and purpose in their lives.  They can once again feel God’s presence in their midst.


I know I will never be a wholly observant Jew.  Jewish halakhah, the “way to walk”, is a corpus of religious laws refined over the centuries from the Talmud’s discussions of the laws in the Torah.  Some of these laws remain meaningless to me even when I study them.  Therefore (since I do not belong to a tight orthodox community where strict observance is at least good manners) I do not bother to observe those particular rules.

But I work hard to do the morally right thing, and whenever I realize I have failed, I feel guilty, and I do what I can to atone.  I find that virtue really is its own reward, bringing me courage and calmness even in adverse physical circumstances.  I also persist in noticing all creation with awe and wonder, which leads to gratitude and the feeling that life is meaningful.  Because I work on obeying moral principles and maintaining an attitude of awe and gratitude, I believe I am serving God with joy, not walking with God by keri.

May each of us find meaning in life.  And may we treat one another with mutual respect, so we can avoid the dead end of an authority figure commanding obedience—or else.

  1. See my post Bechukkotai & Jeremiah: The Inner Reward.
  2. 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that keri means unintentionally; going with God unintentionally is a form of rejection (Samson Raphael Hirsch, the Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Vayikra, Part 2, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2000, p. 951). 21st-century scholar Robert Alter translated keri as “encounter (against)” (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 663).  The Chabad translation is “happenstance” in
  3. Leviticus 26:16-33.
  4. Leviticus 26:39.
  5. Leviticus 26:42, 26:45.
  6. Based on Hirsch, ibid., pp. 944-945; and Or Torah (Dov Baer Friedman of Miedzyrzec, 1804), translation by Arthur Green, in Speaking Torah, Vol. 1, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, VT, 2013, p. 310-311.
  7. Based on Adin Even-Steinsaltz, Talks on the Parasha, Maggid Books, Koren Publishers, Jerusalem, 2015, p. 271.

Behar: Slave Owners

May 21, 2019 at 11:55 pm | Posted in Behar | 1 Comment

Shmitah Observance in Palestine, by Chief Rabbi Abraham Kook, 1924

Every seventh year is the shmitah year, the year of letting things drop, according to this week’s Torah portion, Behar (“On a mountain”).  That year the owners of fields must let them lie fallow, and the owners of vineyards must leave them unpruned, so the land can rest.

It will be a sabbath for the land; [its] food  is [only] for eating, for you yourself, and for your aved, and for your amah, and for your hired laborer [who is] resident with you.  And for your cattle and for the wild beasts that are in your land, they shall all come in to eat.  (Leviticus 25:6-7)

aved (עָבֶד) = a male slave or a servant.  (From the root verb avad, עָבַד = slaved, served, labored.)

Slave (noun) = a person who is the legal property of another and is forced to obey them.

Servant (noun) = a person employed to perform duties for others, especially in a house, [or] a devoted and helpful follower.1

amah (אָמָה) = a female slave or a servant.

The list of people who can eat the produce of a field or vineyard during the seventh year includes the owner and his family, his male and female slaves, and his employees who live with him (as well as his livestock and any wild beasts that wander in).

Although the Torah uses the same word for a slave and a servant, whether male or female, native or foreign, in this passage the slaves are listed separately from the free employees who serve the master to earn wages.

Egyptian beating a slave

Slavery is an accepted part of society in the Torah, as it was throughout the ancient Near East.  In Exodus/Shemot, all the Israelites are slaves in Egypt until God rescues them and leads them through the wilderness.  In Exodus alone, God gives them more than a hundred laws at Mt. Sinai, from the Ten Commandments to case law such as:

If you acquire a Hebrew eved, six years ya-avod and in the seventh he shall leave free, without charge.  (Exodus 21:2)

ya-avod (יַעֲבֺד) = he shall serve.  (A form of the verb avad, עָבַד  = served or slaved.)

In other words, one can only acquire fellow Hebrews or Israelites as an indentured servants: debtors who are forced to work for their masters for a fixed period of time.  At the end of that time, they are free.  Israelites acquired their countrymen as indentured servants when impoverished men sold themselves or impoverished parents sold their children.  These temporary slaves could be redeemed at any time by a kinsman who paid off their owner.  If they were not redeemed, Exodus says, they must be given the option of freedom after six years.   (See my post Mishpatim: On Slavery.)

The lawgiving at Mt. Sinai continues in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, and returns to the subject of slavery in this week’s Torah portion.

And if your kinsman with you becomes poor and is sold to you, lo ta-avod him at the avodah of an aved.  (Leviticus/ Vayikra 25:39)

lo ta-avod (לֺא תַעֲבֺד) = you may not enslave, you may not force to work.  (From the root verb avad.)

avodah (עֲבֺדַה) = service, labor for another.  (Also from the root verb avad.)

In other words, you may not force a fellow Israelite to do the work of a foreign slave.  Israelite slaves must be treated like hired employees who live in the master’s household.  According to Sifra, that means their owner must provide them and their wives and children with food as well as lodging, and assign them work in a craft they already know.2   This week’s Torah portion prohibits charging indentured servants for their food and adding it to the debt they are working off.3

He shall become like a hired worker, like a temporary worker living with you.  Until the year of the yoveil, ya-avod you.  (Leviticus 25:40)

yoveil (יֺּבֵל) = ram; the year of remission, which comes every 50 years and is announced by the blowing of a ram’s horn.  (Called the “jubilee” in English.)

At this point, the law in Leviticus appears to disagree with the law in Exodus.  Leviticus says all Israelite slaves in the country must be freed every 50 years; Exodus says each Israelite slave must be freed after he has served for six years.

In the 11th century CE, Rashi wrote that an Israelite slave was freed either after his own six years of service were completed, or on the yoveil year, whichever came first.4

In the 19th century, S.R. Hirsch wrote that the slave who decided to remain with his master “forever” instead of being freed in the seventh year (Exodus 21:5-6) was nevertheless freed when either his master died, or the yoveil year began, whichever came first.5

But 21st-century translator and commentator Robert Alter wrote that the books of Exodus and Leviticus simply disagree on when an unredeemed Israelite slave must be freed.6  The Exodus version guarantees that after six years every Israelite slave can choose whether to go free or become a permanent slave.  The Leviticus version guarantees that when all Israelite slaves are freed in the yoveil year, they can go home to their own families’ plots of land, which are returned that year to the families that originally owned them.7

Then he shall leave you, he and his children with him, and he shall return to his clan and to the property of his forefathers.  (Leviticus 25: 41)


Even if Israelites sell themselves to resident aliens rather than to their fellow Israelites, their kinsmen have the option of redeeming them paying their master their purchase price.  And if no one redeems them, then they, too, must be released in the yoveil year.8

If he is not redeemed in these ways, then he shall leave in the year of the yoveil, he and his children with him.  Because the Israelites are avadim to me, my avadim, who I brought out from the land of Egypt.  I am God, your God.  (Leviticus 25:54-55)

avadim (עֲבַדִים) = slaves, servants.  (Plural of aved.)

Why must all Israelites who have sold themselves be freed, even if they have to wait up to 49 years?  Rashi wrote that “Because the Israelites are avadim to me” (Leviticus 25:55) means: “My contract came before.”9

An aved cannot have two masters.  And all Israelites are God’s servants, even God’s slaves.  Treating Israelites that you bought as if they were your exclusive property forever would violate God’s previous claim as their ultimate owner—and yours.

Assyrian army of Tiglath-Pilesar leads captives


A foreign slave, on the other hand, is permanent property, and can even be inherited.  The usual practice in the ancient Near East was to enslave foreigners captured in battle.

And your aved and your amah from the nations around you that became yours, from them you may acquire eved and amah.  And also you may acquire [slaves] from the children of the alien residents among you, and from their families they gave birth to while among you in your land.  And they shall become yours as property.  And you may bequeath them to your children after you to inherit as property forever …  (Leviticus 25:44-46)

The book of Leviticus does not think of non-Israelites as God’s people.  Anyone who does not serve the God of Israel can become a permanent slave of a human master.


In the United States, what made the difference between permanent slaves and temporary indentured servants was not religion or ethnicity, but “race”.  Until the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 banned slavery, native Africans and their descendants, as well as some Native Americans, were seized and enslaved, resold, and inherited by European-Americans.  Their owners might choose to free them, but like the foreign slaves in the Torah, they had no right of redemption, nor a right to release after any number of years of service.  Impoverished Europeans and their American children could sell themselves as indentured servants, bound to obey their masters’ whims only until their contracts expired.

Today slavery is officially illegal everywhere in the world, but there are still millions of people who are acquired or inherited as property and forced to obey their owners.

What if we stopped separating people into “us” and “them”?  What if we had a God of Everybody, instead of a God of Israel or a God of (fill in the blank)?  What if we came to believe that all human beings are holy?  Would slavery disappear?

  1. Both definitions are from Concise Oxford English Dictionary, Tenth Edition, Oxford University Press, 2002.
  2. Sifra (a 3rd-century CE collection of legal commentary on Leviticus), Behar Chapter 7, translated in
  3. Leviticus 25:37.
  4. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) on Leviticus 25:40, translated at
  5. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on Exodus 21:6, translated by Daniel Haberman in The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Shemos, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2005, p. 370.
  6. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 658.
  7. See my post Behar: Owning Land.
  8. Leviticus 25:47-54.
  9. Rashi, ibid., on Leviticus 25:55.

Emor: Libations

May 15, 2019 at 1:23 pm | Posted in Emor, Vayishlach | 1 Comment

from Treasures of the Bible, Northrop, 1894

If you make an offering to God in the Hebrew Bible, out of gratitude or obedience or hope for a favor, how does God receive it?  If you offer one of your animals, a priest burns it on the altar and smoke rises to the sky; then God smells the “soothing odor”.1  Priests also burn grain offerings (usually topped with frankincense) on the main altar, and incense on the incense altar.  All of these offerings send aromatic smoke to the heavens, where God is imagined as dwelling when not visiting the earth.2

But what about an offering of wine?  How does God receive a libation?

Although the book of Leviticus/Vayikra gives detailed instructions about animal and grain offerings, libations are mentioned only in this week’s Torah portion, Emor (“Say”), and only as an afterthought.  The portion reviews six holy days during the year.3  The instructions for two of them include libations.

On the first day after the week of Passover, you must bring the first sheaf (omer) of your barley harvest to a priest, along with a sacrifice consisting of a yearling lamb and its corresponding grain-offering of fine flour mixed with oil, for a “soothing odor”

and its nesekh of wine, a quarter of a hin.  (Leviticus Vayikra 23:23)

nesekh (נֶסֶךְ) = poured-offering, libation.  Plural: nesakhim, נְסָכִים.  (From the root verb nasakh, נָסַךְ = pour out.)

A hin is about 1 ½ gallons, so a quarter of a hin would be about 6 cups or 1.4 liters of wine.  The passage does not say where the wine is poured.

At the end of seven weeks of the omer comes Shavuot, the only day of the year when leavened bread is brought to the altar.

And you shall offer with the bread seven unblemished yearling lambs, and one bull from the herd, and two rams; they shall be a rising-offering4 for God.  And their grain offerings and their nesakhim, a fire-offering, a soothing odor for God.  (Leviticus 23:18)

Does this mean that the nesakhim are part of the fire-offering?  If so, perhaps the priests pour the wine directly on the roasting meat and grain.  The addition of wine would enhance the aroma of the smoke for a while.

The passage about offerings on holy days in the Torah portion Emor concludes without any further information about libations:

These are the appointed times of God that you shall announce as holy assemblies for offering fire-offerings to God: rising-offering and grain-offering, slaughter-offering and nesakhim, each thing on its day.  (Leviticus 23:37)


Jacob makes the first poured-offering mentioned in the bible, after he wakes up from his dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder or stairway between heaven and earth.

from Cassell’s Family Bible, 1880

And Jacob erected a standing-marker in the place where [God] had spoken to him, a standing-marker of stone, vayaseikh on it a nesekh, vayitzok on it oil.  (Genesis/Bereishit 35:13)

vayaseikh (וַיַּסֵּךְ) = and he poured out. A form of the root verb nasakh, which usually means pouring a libation of wine. 5

vayitzok (וַיִּצֺק) = and he poured out.  A form of the verb yatzak (יָצַק), which usually means pouring oil, or pouring molten metal into a mold.  The bible never uses yatzak for wine.

Pouring oil on religious objects or on people’s heads consecrates them to God; both kings and priests must be anointed before they take up their new roles.  In Genesis, Jacob erects a standing-stone, pours a libation of wine as an offering to the God who spoke to him, and consecrates the stone to God by pouring oil on it.

Libation ceremony, Minoan, 1400 BCE, Hagia Triada

Nobody told him to do this.  But pouring out wine to the gods was a common practice in the ancient Near East as early as the 14th century BCE, when it was depicted in art and written texts by Egyptians, Minoans in Crete, Hittites in Anatolia, and Canaanites in Ugarit.  In these religious rituals, a libation for a god was poured into a bowl, which was sometimes set out along with a ritual meal in front of a statues of the god.6

The first time the God of Israel requests a libation in the bible is at Mt. Sinai, when God gives a partial job description for the new priests Moses is going to anoint.  Every day the priests must offer two yearling lambs on the altar, one in the morning and one in the evening, each accompanied by an offering of finely-ground wheat flour mixed with oil to make a patty—

—and a nesekh, a quarter of a hin of wine for one lamb.  And the second lamb you shall do during the evening; you shall do it like the grain-offering and its nesekh of the morning, for a soothing odor of fire for God.  (Exodus/Shemot 29:40-41)

This text also implies that the wine is poured over the roasting meat like a seasoning, to make its aroma especially soothing to God.  A sentence in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar is more explicit:

And wine you shall offer for the nesekh, half a hin, a fire-offering of soothing odor for God.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 15:10)


According to the Hebrew Bible, nesakhim for the God of Israel must be poured by priests directly onto the altar, where meat and grain offerings are roasting.  Thus the fragrance of the wine can reach God through the smoke that ascends to the sky.

The only exceptions are Jacob’s impulsive libation in Genesis, and libations for other gods in the book of Jeremiah.

And the houses of Jerusalem and the houses of the kings of Judah will become like the place of Tofet7, the impure place, because of all the houses that sent up smoke from their roofs to all the army of the heavens, vehaseikh nesakhim to other gods.  (Jeremiah 19:13)

vehaseikh (וְהַסֵּךְ) = and poured out.  (A form of the verb nasakh.)

Jeremiah also rails against the practice of baking cakes for “the queen of the heavens” and pouring libations to her and other gods from their own rooftops.8  The problem is the worship of other gods, not the places where the libations are poured.

I wonder if Jacob, and the worshippers of the queen of heaven, and everyone who poured a libation onto a rooftop or into an empty bowl, had a more sophisticated and less literal concept of God.  A god who is pacified by the smell of aromatic smoke is like a thoughtless beast at the mercy of its physical sense.  But a god who appreciates symbolic acts of sharing by humans who present gifts instead of consuming all the wine or food themselves is like a mature human who understands thoughts.


Libation amphora, Second Temple coin

The Israelite concept of God had changed by the first century BCE, when King Herod remodeled the second temple in Jerusalem.  There was a gap between the new altar and its ramp that was only partly filled in; pipes descended from holes in the surface of the gap, according to the Talmud.  The priests poured nesakhim on the stone surface of the altar, rather than on the fire.  The wine pooled, then drained out through the holes at the edge where the altar abutted the ramp.

Talmudic claims compiled several centuries later include:

“… Rabbi Elazar bar Tzadok said: There was a small gap between the ramp and the altar west of the ramp, and once in seventy years young priests would descend there and gather from there the congealed wine left over from the libations that set over time, which resembled round cakes of dried and pressed figs.”  (Talmud Bavli, Sukkah 49a)9

“… Rabbi Yochanan said: The drainpipes built into the altar and extending beneath it were created from the six days of Creation … they are hollow and descend to the depths.”  (Talmud Bavli, Sukkah 49a)

“Resh Lakish said: When they pour wine onto the altar, they plug the top of the drainpipes so that the wine does not descend to the depths … the space between the altar and the ramp would fill with wine.”  (Talmud Bavli, Sukkah 49b)

Whether the drainpipes were plugged or unplugged, the wine was not evaporated in the altar fire.  Instead, the priests poured out the libations where everyone could see the wine pool over the stone surface of the altar.

Perhaps by then the people of Judah valued the gesture of giving their wine to God, and no longer needed to imagine God smelling it.


Today even our gifts to God are non-material.  We still donate money and food for those in need, and for the maintenance of our religious buildings and their staff.  But what do we donate to God?  Only our thankfulness, and our good deeds.

A God who appreciates those is an advanced God, indeed.

  1. See my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy.
  2. See my post Terumah & Psalm 74: Second Home.
  3. Pesach, the omer, Shavuot, Rosh Shashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot (Leviticus 23.)
  4. “Rising-offering” is a literal translation of olah (עֹלָה), in which one or more whole animals are completely burned up, leaving no roasted meat for the priests or the donors. See my post Vayikra & Tzav: Fire OfferingsWithout Slaughter, Part 1.
  5. The verb nasakh (poured out) appears 25­­ times in the Hebrew Bible; 19 of those occurrences are about pouring out a libation of wine. The verb is also used once for pouring oil (Psalm 2:6), twice for pouring water (2 Samuel 23:16, 1 Chronicles 11:18), twice for pouring molten metal (Isaiah 40:19, 44:10), once when God pours out sleep (Isaiah 29:10), and once when God pours out wisdom (Proverbs 8:23).
  6. g.; Adolf Erman, Life in Ancient Egypt, trans. by H.M. Tirard, Dover Publications, New York, 1971; Wikipedia, “Libations”, 5/11/2019.
  7. Tofet (תֺּפֶת) = spitting; a valley in Jerusalem where corpses were burned in wartime.
  8. Jeremiah 7:17-18, 32:29, 44:15-18.
  9. All translations from the Talmud in this essay are from The William Davidson Talmud,


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